El Paso shooter wasn't a 'lone wolf' — and his so-called online 'manifesto' proves why

While we often think about those who commit mass violence as acting individually, we must reckon with the fact that these extremists are never alone online.
Image: A police cordon is seen after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso
A police officer secures the area after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Dr. Joan Donovan, director and lead researcher of the Technology and Social Change Research Project

It’s mourning again in America. Many of us went to sleep on Saturday night grieving the news of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, motivated by racism. We woke up Sunday morning to another mass murder in Dayton, Ohio, this one with even less of a motive. Journalists are scrambling to address each event, knowing that their audiences are spinning in different directions, exhausted by the banality of violence while at the same time looking for more information. How much of this violence is motivated by uncontrollable hatred and rage, where the murderer seeks some kind of societal revenge? How much is meant to inspire further violence from others teetering on the edge? Ultimately, these events are not monocausal. White supremacists are relying on both social and technical means to reach new publics, while inspiring others.

White supremacists are relying on both social and technical means to reach new publics, while inspiring others.

As someone who researches white supremacists and the tactics they use to manipulate the media, I see a pattern emerging. First, a person planning an attack posts on a fringe online message board. Second, they carry out the attack. Third, the media picks up the post and amplifies it. Fourth, the police and experts on extremism are interviewed, where they validate and contextualize the shooter's ideas. While journalists strive for objectivity and see themselves as serving the public, in situations like these, the press is an important part of the circulation process.

Have a response to a THINK piece that would make a good letter to the editor? Click here to find out how.

In the U.S., much of the debate over how to talk about and categorize these acts of hate has centered around the psychology and methodology of the "lone wolf." In contrast to our more traditional idea of terrorists as people who pledge allegiance to specific religions or organizations, lone wolves are, allegedly, isolated individuals who act on their extreme beliefs independent of an established hierarchy or centralized leadership structure. The uptick in these online screeds, which increasingly refer to one another, has made one point clear: It’s time to re-evaluate the lone wolf phenomenon.

Get the think newsletter.

While intent is difficult to assign when the person leaves no writing behind, the presence of writings often factors heavily into the type and length of coverage. Posting screeds online or having a social media presence increases the long-tail of an attacker’s crime. Posting a statement also allows an attacker to control the public conversation and set the media agenda. But perhaps most important, such writing contributes to a conversation already occurring on social media among white supremacists. That is, what police call "manifestos" are considered good content for bad people.

While the Internet is a revolution in communication, there is a tension between free speech and free reach. Social media platforms bring people together just as much as they pull us apart. White supremacists are cognizant that police, reporters and researchers are lurking on specific anonymous message boards looking for clues about past and future crimes. As a circumvention tool, the internet also allows the shooters in Christchurch, Poway and El Paso an unmediated connection to the press and public alike — as well as to one another.

The internet allows the shooters in Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso an unmediated connection to the press and public alike — as well as to each other.

The direct link between white supremacists and those they are seeking attention from is both a social and a technical problem. The same technology that brings together fans of metal music or fantasy football is also used by white supremacists. Within the online worlds of white supremacists, there is dissent and discussion, but ultimately users return to these message boards because they enjoy debating about ideology and how their movement should progress. Extremists tend to return to message boards because these spaces are largely unmoderated and do not track users in the way that major platforms do. Those features can support the open sharing of racist, misogynistic and other extreme beliefs.

My point here isn’t that we must get rid of message boards, because that is impossible. Rather, we need to be aware of how technology can be used to bring together these disparate individuals and unite in a common cause.

The internet has long incubated online communities trafficking hate and violence. But these groups have grown in volume and newsworthiness as social media gave them the means to reach out and find one another — to plan the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, for example. As a result, white supremacists are more connected today than they have been for decades. With the motivation for the terror in El Paso attributed to one of these online communities, it is more than just talk at stake now. The continued existence of this online community requires them to become more entrenched in these hate-filled beliefs at the same time that more people are searching for these online communities than ever before. If journalists are not careful, more could be radicalized to believe violence is a means to an end.

Like other online communities, these extremist groups find solace and conviviality in the chaos they cause in the world. Having the media fetishize these message boards, alongside the attackers, grants them power. The coverage of so-called manifestos draws in new audiences and considerably increases the reach of those who seek spread white nationalism through terror. These murderers may not be card-carrying members of the same club, but online message boards have effectively created an easy-to-access hive filled with people ready and willing to offer advice and support. More than just a technological problem, this is a social phenomenon that requires careful coverage from journalists, police, politicians and experts alike so that we do not unintentionally contribute to the next attack.

While we often think about those who commit mass violence as lone wolves, we must reckon with the fact that they are never alone online.